Thinking Clearly about Democracy – what it means and what that entails

Ever sat down in a boardroom, at a gathering with friends, or in a classroom and come up with some really great plans for the future? Sure you have, everyone has. You are enthused, planning for this and that outcome, excited for the prospects of success and hopeful that all will go according to plan. You are quite likely to come up with a somewhat lengthy list of things you hope to do.

Now take a second sober thought. It turns out that you are the one tasked with making it all happen. You soon recognize the many complexities involved in realizing the plans, trade-offs to be made, resources to be expended, and so on and so forth.

I think that many of us express frustration about democracy because we do not get past the first stage in thinking about what can and can’t be achieved. We end up thinking about the meaning of democracy in improper terms.

There seems to be an idea floating around out there that democracy is about everyone having an equal opportunity and effective ability to be involved in political decision-making. There are so many ways of conceptualizing and operationalizing this, but it comes down to as many people from as many groups getting to influence actual decisions in meaningful ways. 

The allure of this concept seems to garner empirical support from the Athenian model that serves as a template. In its heyday, Athens was a small city-state, in which citizens had the chance to deliberate and debate key issues, and decide on them in a more participative fashion. Of course, this only applied to some citizens, but at the very least they genuinely took more time to deliberate, and decide on things on the basis of reasoning and argumentation that approximated inclusivity.

We can glean that something close to this ideal is what people think of today when they think of democracy. It can be seen through the complaints about it – that it is not inclusive enough, that people do not get to contribute to as many issues, that there is a “legitimacy deficit” between the political class and the ‘will’ of the citizenry. It is said that democracies are dying because voting rates have been declining, and there is less interest and engagement in politics. 

There is also positive proof from the sheer number of academic disciplines and movements centred around a reconceptualization democracy—“participatory,” “deliberative,” “inclusive,” “direct,” “stakeholder involvement” are some of the terms and movements.

Scanning the Canadian news headlines these days, one finds language indicative of dissatisfaction with democracy and terms that represent modifications. “Will the Senate respect Democracy and First Nations rights?,” “We Have to be a part of it,” “Hoping to change how Women are represented in Politics.”

They touch mostly on inclusion and representation along majority/minority lines, defined by identity group. They constitute worthy goals to a certain extent, but much is lost in the vagueness and moralized valence of the language.

Indigenous governance issues are so fraught in Canada because of a history of injustice. Yet, the differences in culture, styles of government and economic systems are considerable. Thus, the practical barriers facing those trying to equalize and democratize decision-making and economic development are far from trivial. 

It is hard to imagine how truly democratic – in any sense of the aforementioned buzzwords – a consultation and governance process can be that requires input from hundreds of distinct communities on a plethora of issues that touch on Indigenous Rights and land treaties. The Duty to Consult requirement, the number, distinctiveness and comprehensiveness of Self-Government treaties make it such that an idealized notion of democracy—balanced against practical concerns and in light of development objectives—is hard to achieve. 

There is no doubt a good deal to be gained here from giving authority and discretion to local decision-makers, though the risk is always that it is done ineffectively – how much time, resources, and bureaucratic layering is required, for precisely which goals? Do the goals and practicalities differ group by group? What standard of ‘well-being’ is desired by and for these communities and is it compatible with major cultural, institutional and economic differences? 

I focused on “deliberative” democracy in grad school – a theoretical movement that argues that the meaning of democracy—rule of the demos (the people in a political unit) – implies more participation. It is yet attentive to the fact that mere expression of opinion is distinct from reasoned opinion, and voting and decision-making on that basis. Deliberation, practiced under certain constraints is supposed to remedy the twin deficits of unequal participation and representation, as well as the problem of ill-informed public opinion.

These goals are noble, but so much is lost in the details of implementation.

When you express your opinion, you are essentially listing your preferences for things and merely indicating that you would like them. There is no necessary ranking involved, no ties to the real world where you would have to consider that you could have one, but at the expense of the other. The idealized version of democracy is all about expressing opinions and preferences without paying attention to consequences.

Another issue is size, scope and efficiency in institutions. The reason why organizations work well is because they have a common purpose that is manageable. This serves as the organizing principle around which members can direct their actions. In an organization, disagreements and differences are put aside in light of the common interest in pursuit of the good in question. As size and number of goals increases, the specificity of the common purpose decreases and it becomes more vague and nebulous, and difficult to pursue.

That is why many of the morally loaded terms associated with democracy are deeply misleading. What common purpose are people pursuing in a society? There are only a few key things people can agree on, and those still only in certain contexts, and with many qualifications made. People differ on most things in minor and major ways.

What these points boil down to is that the attempt to “increase” diversity, representation, inclusion and so on, cannot be done ad infinitum with increasingly positive returns. Furthermore, as they increase beyond a certain threshold, they lose their meaning. Insofar as decisions must be made, agreements reached, and social norms fostered and maintained, the diversity that exists between cultures, people, and points of view must be levelled down. The great irony behind diversity and inclusive representation is that it is not so diverse, and not so inclusive. What we often see is visually recognizable diversity, though the ‘representatives’ in question exhibit the same groupthink platitudes, behaviours and opinions.

Quite frankly, the core of democracy is just about having the chance to throw one group out at the end of the term and make room for the next. A good deal of the complaints about democracy are really about choice and influence. It is unfortunate that we have added such a strong sense of the term influence to the normative agenda, because that is so very hard to scale up on all fronts—like social status, it is a relative good for boring practical reasons. You simply cannot ‘equalize’ influence—this makes no sense.

If we think about democracy as choice and freedom, then by all accounts we are becoming more democratic when we have more possibilities to act freely, influence, and mould our own lives in the spheres in which they exist. The trend has been an upward one overall, and continues to increase due to the expansion of individual protections and economic freedoms in places around the world that have never known them. The more committees, referendums, hearings, government departments, agencies, and time spent ‘truly listening’ to people, the less democratic we become because we’ve failed to look at mundane truths about size, complexity, trade-offs, time, and resources among many others.

This originally appeared here in the Post Millennial.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s